A seventh place finish flatters Ross County in many ways. An eight-match unbeaten streak to end the season masks a level of inconsistency that has dogged Jim McIntyre’s side since Autumn 2015. Last year’s League Cup win showed that there is enough quality there to consolidate as a mid-level Premiership team, but for long enough of this season that hasn’t been the case.
A poor summer transfer strategy meant that County rarely showed the level of performance that has come to be expected of a club that aspires to be better than simply avoiding relegation every season, with the commensurate resources available. Reasons for that were discussed earlier in the season but matters gradually improved by the end, with some of McIntyre’s January signings bringing a balance to the side that wasn’t previously there.
In order of minutes played, but only including those with two or more league appearances:
Scott Fox – 8
Ross County’s first-choice goalkeeper won the supporters’ player of the year, showing a level of consistency that few others in the squad have this season. There have been some questionable moments: Erik Sviatchenko’s 40 yard daisy cutter should have been better dealt with, while near post concessions to Patrick Roberts and David Templeton highlight a weakness that has never really gone away. Those errors are few and far between, however, with Fox having more standout moments than failures.
There might be better ‘keepers in the league for reflex saves, but there are not many better suited to McIntyre’s insistence on the back-side of the team being able to keep the ball moving to move the opposition about. Fox is not just a key member of the team for his saves, but he is crucial to the manager’s strategy on the pitch. A visit to Ibrox in February is a prime example, with Alex Schalk’s goal coming from a patient build-up by Fox and the defenders before the ‘keeper chipped the ball accurately to the touch-line to allow County to get behind Rangers’ defence. Fox’s succession of fine saves later in the match meant County left with a point.
There are no complaints about Fox’s recent two-year contract extension.
Liam Boyce – 9
Top scorer in the league, with almost half of his team’s Premiership goals this season. Six assists. The stats don’t quite do him justice. Liam Boyce’s touch and vision allow him to make things happen in the final third with a fluency and ease that few others in the country can match.
Boyce’s goals have been crucial to County ending at arm’s length from the relegation places, but it’s the method in his play that make him a pleasure to watch. The way that he holds the ball up for others at the half-way line, his trap of the ball with the right foot like how a labrador mouths a limp pheasant, and the instinct to time a run between two defenders make him not just Ross County’s best striker but arguably their best ever player.
Boyce’s time has come to move to a more competitive level. He lacks the speed and agility to play up front on his own in a counter-attacking style, which will limit his market to middling English Championship teams at best, but he has the skill and application to make his next move work and prosper for his national team.
Kenny van der Weg – 6
His first season in Scottish football has been good enough but not outstanding. Van der Weg doesn’t have the pace nor intricacy to be a successful attacking full-back, but in a defensive or counter-attacking strategy, or especially on the left of a back three, the Dutch defender can thrive on marking and winning his duels.
Marcus Fraser – 7
Like van der Weg, Marcus Fraser is a player whose attributes put him in between a couple of positions. Fraser is young and mobile enough to act as an effective full-back but he lacks some quality in the final third to be one of the best in the league. He reads the game expertly for a defender of his age but his slim build and relative lack of height preclude him from being a leading centre-back in a back four, yet he suits being in a three-man central defence perfectly. Fraser has been decent to good through most of the season but thrived in the late-season change to a three-man defence.
Andrew Davies – 8
It’s been a strange season for Andrew Davies. At first it seemed like he would be leaving the club to return to England with his family, at which point he was stripped of the captaincy and seemingly replaced by Jay McEveley. He was shunted to the right side of a back three beside two other veteran defenders at the beginning of the season, exposing his lack of mobility in an experiment which went spectacularly wrong. Davies then iterated his commitment to the club which saw his form improve and he has been at his best again in 2017, where he has been allowed to be the senior figure to dominate the back line. A return to the centre of a back three – with any two of Kenny van der Weg, Marcus Fraser and Jason Naismith flanking him – perfectly suits his strengths. With Paul Quinn leaving, Davies will likely become club captain once again. Davies doesn’t chatter constantly to his defence like Quinn, but when he does speak it is noted and he leads by example by his actions and body language. Signed for another two years, Davies will need to be used more sparingly as a long career of putting his body on the line of brave challenges catches up on him, but his influence on the pitch is important to County’s future success.
Michael Gardyne – 7
You can never fault Michael ‘Midge’ Gardyne’s work for the team. It hasn’t been his most productive season in terms of getting goals and assists, but in the last three seasons he has been Ross County’s most diligent wide player. The first half of the season featured a number of close calls – Midge was getting into the right places and doing the correct things, but the final connection wasn’t quite there. He went over a year without scoring, but any question of him losing his spark was answered with a couple of superb goals late in the season against Celtic and Hamilton Accies. Now the club’s leading goalscorer and appearance holder, Gardyne should be able to produce the goods for at least another season yet.
Martin Woods – 6
No other Ross County player since Kenny Gilbert has divided opinion in the same way. Supporters of his say that he takes responsibility, he shows for the ball and tries to make passes that few others do in the side. His critics argue that when the going gets tough he can be weak, his free-kick taking is sub-par and he doesn’t showcase his technique and eye for a pass enough.
Is he a flashy showpony who doesn’t work enough, or a genuine team player? Frustratingly he shows both through the course of a season.
The second league match of the season was the first Highland Derby, where he was paired in a central midfield two with Chris Routis against Caley Thistle’s three, spearheaded by Iain Vigurs. Woods’s main job was to stop Vigurs being a threat around and into the final third and he was terrific at nullifying his opponent, as well as pressing the other midfielders when necessary. We didn’t see any strutting or indeed much playmaking from him in that fixture, but his role in destructing Caley Thistle’s biggest creative source made it arguably his finest game for the club, along with the previous season’s League Cup semi-final performance against Celtic. He can do the dirty work just fine when he wants.
That is balanced against games such as the 4-1 defeat at Fir Park and 4-0 thrashing at Pittodrie in the first half of the season, where he was over-run in the middle. Instead of digging deeper to keep the match competitive he gave off body language that suggested he’d given in. A central midfielder – a senior player in the team – should not do that. In other matches he has lashed out at opponents who have easily beaten him, probably to give away a professional foul but often with enough malice to make County supporters wince.
2016/17 has shown everything that we have come to expect from Martin Woods, who rarely shows a consistency to win the majority of fans over. It has been neither a great nor terrible season for him, but in such a mediocre campaign for the team as a whole until Spring that is not a favourable judgement.
Chris Routis – 6
There is a lot more still to come from Chris Routis, who has all of the physical and technical attributes to be a leading midfielder in the Premiership. Unfortunately some poor concentration and decision-making has held him back at times this season. Injury and a succession of appearances where he needlessly gave the ball away saw him lose his place in midfield in the second half of the campaign, just as County found some form. However his contribution shouldn’t be dismissed: his dynamism adds something different to the side from the other midfielders. A headed goal from a late run and some Jackson Irvine-esque surges up the pitch in a 4-2 win at St Johnstone are prime examples of what he can do. If he improves on his workrate and consistency in the next year then County can do very well from that indeed.
Tim Chow – 7
Tim Chow is 23 years old now but this was his first season of getting regular first-team football after joining from Wigan late in the summer window. In a midfield three he has been the player to sit and cover the others. This might not necessarily suit his best strength which is his running power, but he is a diligent player and is least likely to give the ball away in dangerous areas in front of the defence, which was a recurring problem through the season. With a first-touch switch in play in his locker Chow can be quietly effective, but he needs to show more of a killer touch in and around the box to improve the team further.
Chow’s biggest weakness this season has been his naivety, which was shown early in his County career with a wild challenge on Jonny Hayes at Pittodrie. However, he is a reliable player and a quick learner who will surely improve with more experience.
Craig Curran – 6
There is possibly no-one else in the league who gives as much effort as possible on the pitch as Craig Curran does. There might not be another player who so successfully tests and pushes his own technical limitations either, which makes Curran a fans’ favourite. However it has not been a vintage year for him, with health problems hurting his form for the majority. We began to see the best of him toward the end of the season, particularly in the 4-0 hammering of Inverness CT when he was the best player on the pitch (despite Liam Boyce scoring all four goals). If he can continue the late-season form into the beginning of next then he will be a pivotal player.
Jay McEveley – 6
It was tempting to hand a 5 out to Jay McEveley because of the amount of daft goals conceded that he has been culpable for. When at his best McEveley makes the sport look so easy to play; at his worst his mistakes can be a liability for the team. He often shows both within a single match. Whether good or bad, McEveley’s appearances tend to be unmissable.
Paul Quinn – 5
Injuries have caught up with Paul Quinn, who struggled with his hamstring through the whole campaign. Andrew Davies’s uncertainty at the beginning of the season saw Quinn given the club captaincy but with Davies staying and McEveley joining, there were too many chiefs and not enough Indians in the defensive set-up and something had to give.
Quinn was part of the team that won a couple of matches in the league early in the season but by winter he was merely deputising for Davies while managing his injury, to little positive effect. A couple of extremely cheap goals gifted in successive losses to Kilmarnock highlighted Quinn’s struggles. His release from the club at the end of his contract seems reasonable but as a natural leader and organiser he will turn out to be a useful coach for another club.
Alex Schalk – 7
It might be a surprise to some that Alex Schalk had just over half of the minutes on the pitch that Liam Boyce did in the league this season. Schalk is a useful tactical option to have and has quality in ways that the other strikers don’t. His finishing hasn’t been as reliable in the same positions as Liam Boyce and Craig Curran, but his pace and improving movement mean that he can find himself with more chances than the others. He has scored some important goals for the club, none more so this season than the late equaliser against Inverness, which was probably the difference between being drawn into a late relegation fight and pulling away from the bottom.
Schalk has improved a lot as a striker since coming to Scotland and he can feel hard done by to not start more games, but when two strikers are used Jim McIntyre trusts the Boyce-Curran partnership more than any other and Schalk has had to bide his time.
Jason Naismith – 8
Brought in from St Mirren in January, it didn’t seem that Jason Naismith would be involved in too many matches – Marcus Fraser occupied the regular right-back slot in the back four. With injuries to Jay McEveley and Paul Quinn, Fraser has sometimes tucked in to the centre-back slot and that has afforded Naismith a regular game, particularly after the team’s switch to a 3-5-2. In the three-man defence, Naismith has looked at home as one of the centre-backs flanking Andrew Davies just as much as when used as the rampaging wing-back.
Naismith has barely put a foot wrong, with some tough defending complemented by confident attacking – if he had just a little more composure around the opposing penalty area he could become a complete player for this level.
Ryan Dow – 6
Having joined in early Autumn, Ryan Dow took a long time to get into a good rhythm. Dow scored a vital winning goal against Aberdeen in December by typically ghosting into goalscoring positions, but it took until the beginning of April for him to show quality performances for 90 minutes, rather than very fleeting moments as had been the case until then. He might still have been dealing with the injury from before he joined County or was simply trying to rebuild his confidence, but the player involved from April onwards seemed transformed: earlier in the season Dow’s presence on the pitch was barely noticeable but latterly he was aggressive, incisive and decisive in his attacking play. His form to end the season earned him a new two-year deal, so let’s hope he can follow through with that into the next campaign.
Jonathan Franks – 5
Played a lot at the beginning of the season without contributing anything in terms of goals and assists, Jonathan Franks fell out of favour by mid-October and was barely seen until the last couple of matches of the season. A useful, hard-working squad player without the cutting-edge quality to justify being a first-choice winger, Franks has been released but could be a good option for another club.
Jim O’Brien – 7
Brought in on loan from Shrewsbury at the end of January, it is difficult to know exactly where Jim O’Brien’s best position is. He has lost the pace that gave him some success as a chalk-on-the-boots winger, but he doesn’t have the physical robustness or discipline to be used as one of two central midfielders. His best matches for Ross County have been either been ticking in from the right flank of a 4-4-2 where to allow Jason Naismith to overlap from right-back, or as one of three central midfielders in a 3-5-2. When the system suits his attributes O’Brien has tended to be the best midfielder in the team, with a show of some acute vision and precise passing as well as a much-needed shooting threat from range. If he returned to the club permanently it would be a very good signing.
Ian McShane – 4
When Ian McShane arrived at the club on a three-year deal (and with an undisclosed transfer fee to Queen of the South) it was seen that he could be the technician in midfield to complement others. A slight frame and a preference to sit in front of the defence, rather than play Jim McIntyre’s preferred box-to-box styling, has held him back from developing greatly at Ross County and he has since been usurped by Tim Chow’s greater athleticism. It hasn’t helped that Martin Woods returned to the club a short while into McShane’s season, who is a similarly styled player with greater experience. McShane undoubtedly has greater shooting and passing technique but it wasn’t enough to force his way into the team and he is being allowed to find a new club this summer.
Erik Cikos – 6
In the little he played, Erik Cikos played very well at right-back. It was clear that Marcus Fraser was always going to be Jim McIntyre’s first-choice for that position when Fraser returned after being out with injury at the beginning of the season. Cikos’s talent deserved better than to sit on the bench for the best part of six months.
Tony Dingwall – 5
Like Jonathan Franks, Tony Dingwall was given plenty of opportunities to stake a permanent place in the team but didn’t show enough quality to justify it. His best position is off a main striker, which he has never been given an opportunity to do so in the first team (apart from ten minutes at Firhill once when desperately chasing a game). Instead he has been used as a winger or even wing-back. Dingwall has been given another six months to rehabilitate but it is likely that he will need to find a new club when he is fit.
Aaron McCarey – 6
Scott Fox’s deputy in goals, Aaron McCarey has done little wrong but until Fox’s form drops he will find it difficult to get a look in.
Chris Burke – 8
We saw precious little of Chris Burke before he fell ill for most of the season, but he had a huge impact in a handful of appearances. At 33 years old Burke made up for a lack of pace with close control and dangerous crossing. He deserves another contract if he can get back to full health.
Reghan Tumilty – 6
A bright young right-back who has had to deputise for numerous injuries at the tail end of the season, Reghan Tumilty still has a lot to learn in the art of defence before he can seriously threaten Marcus Fraser and Jason Naismith for a regular slot in the first team.
Milan Lalkovic – 5
Brought in from Portsmouth on loan with a reputation of being a winger with a lot of quality, Milan Lalkovic flattered to deceive in his few appearances for Ross County. A reluctance to mark the opposing full-back when his own team was defending, Jim McIntyre soon realised why Lalkovic was made available for loan.
Greg Morrison – 5
Due to injuries in early Autumn, Greg Morrison was called up from the development squad to play a key role in a small amount of games. With a strong physique and a cannon of a right foot he can be a good striker at this level, but his lack of experience showed in the small amount of time afforded to him. He will get much better.
Dylan Dykes – 6
When the team was cruising 4-0 up against their derby rivals, centtral midfielder Dylan Dykes was brought on to get some first team experience and could not have enjoyed an easier debut. Dykes has the frame and strength to compete in midfield but he also has the touch and vision to spray passes as good as anyone in the first team. He just needs experience now and hopefully he gets that next season.
Written by John Maxwell